To drive the back roads of Montecito--a quiet, polished little community immediately east of Santa Barbara--is to wonder what’s behind the walls screening estates owned by the reclusive rich and famous. Oprah Winfrey lives there; JFK and Jackie honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch at the edge of town and scads of who’s whos have checked in at the historic Biltmore Hotel, now a Four Seasons, on the Montecito coast.
Recently, I discovered that there’s a way to experience the Montecito lifestyle by touring Lotusland, an estate and garden created by the opera singer Ganna Walska. You have to book a tour in advance; groups are small to preserve the quiet residential character of the neighborhood; and tickets don’t come cheap at $35 per person. But for those of us in the hoi polloi who yearn for a peek through Montecito gates, touring Lotusland is a golden opportunity.
The estate dates back to the late 19th century, the pink Mediterranean Revival style mansion to 1919 when then owners engaged Biltmore architect Reginald Johnson to design it. But Walska, who bought the property in 1941, put the deepest stamp on the place by creating its remarkable gardens featuring everything from topiary dinosaurs to Boojum cacti (or Fouquieria columnar, native to the Baja peninsula in Mexico).
Beside being a passionate plant collector, Walska was a character. Born in Poland--with the far less glamorous name Hanna Puacz--she grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, then studied voice in Paris. Her real talent, though, seems to have been finding rich husbands--5 of them in a row, followed by an impecunious guru 20 years her junior, for whom she bought the estate, originally called Tibetland. When they divorced Walska turned her attention to her garden, expanded and now managed by the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation.
It takes a good two hours to see the whole thing, beginning with an Australian garden set in an old eucalyptus grove, featuring plants from down under equally at home in the Santa Barbara climate. A mature Japanese garden follows, with a pond and small Shinto shrine; then dense enclaves of bromeliads, ferns, succulents, aloes and cacti, all dramatic and showy, to suit Madame Walska’s nature. She preferred large, unusual, tropical specimens, not pretty flowers, though there‘s a colorful horticultural clock and nothing can stop springtime azaleas in the Japanese garden.
Lotusland’s stars are towering, thick-trunked bottle trees (Brachychiton, native to Queensland, Australian); a massive old Monterey pine; and rare, cone-bearing cycads, including Encephalartos woodii, thought to be among the oldest plants on earth, a delicacy for dinosaurs, now extinct in the wild.
The house is closed to visitors, but when I was there in April the pavilion next door had a special display of opera costumes, hats and jewelry owned by the remarkable Madame Walska. It’s fun to imagine her presiding over a cocktail party on the lawn in a bedizened evening gown, maybe crooning a few bars from La Traviata.